The West Should Stand Up for Chechnya

Date: December 9, 1999
Source: LA Times
By Mark Kramer, Director of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies


World politics: Russia must get the message that its relations with the U.S. and its allies will suffer if the slaughter continues.

During the battle of Corregidor in World War II, eyewitnesses described the "almost unimaginable scale of destruction. Death has been raining down everywhere."

That scene is now about to be replayed in Chechnya, where Russian troops have been destroying everything in their way. Moscow's aim increasingly seems to be to eliminate the Chechens as a nation.

This week, Russian military commanders offered a blunt ultimatum to the tens of thousands of civilians--mainly elderly and disabled people--who remain in Grozny, the Chechen capital: "There will be no more talks. Everyone who fails to leave the city [by Dec. 11] will be destroyed." Although relentless bombing by Russian planes has made it almost impossible for refugees to leave Grozny safely, Russian commanders warned that "those staying in the city will be regarded as terrorists and bandits."

The latest war in Chechnya began in August, three years after Russia was forced to accept a humiliating truce that deprived it of any control of the republic. During the previous war, from December 1994 to August 1996, Russian forces engaged in indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian targets, yet they were unable to defeat the resistance.

In this latest conflict, Russian military officers have avoided some of the worst mistakes they committed in 1994-96. Russian commanders have relied on the methodical advance of infantry and mechanized units, reinforced by massive air, missile and artillery strikes. Russian officers have used far more troops this time--100,000--and have sought to draw on the most reliable and best trained soldiers.

Despite these improvements, the campaign in Chechnya has not redressed the underlying problems and weaknesses of the Russian Army. The army overall is still in disarray. The troops are still poorly suited for counterinsurgency operations and mountain warfare, the two types of fighting that will be essential if Russia hopes to reestablish military control over Chechnya.

That is why Russia's campaign has become a war of extermination. Without the capacity to take on Chechen guerrillas in hand-to-hand combat, Russian forces instead are trying to bring about the outright destruction of the Chechen republic.

This is not the first time that the government in Moscow has sought to annihilate the Chechen people. During Russia's bloody conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century, entire villages were razed and their inhabitants massacred. In 1944, Josef Stalin ordered the wholesale deportation of Chechens to Central Asia, leading to the destruction of a quarter of the Chechen population. The war in 1994-96 resulted in the deaths of at least 30,000 civilians and perhaps as many as 90,000.

During the latest war, the Russian government has claimed that it is merely trying to wipe out "terrorists" who launched raids into neighboring Dagestan and who supposedly carried out the horrific bombings of three apartment buildings in Moscow. The raids did occur, but no firm evidence has emerged that the bombings were carried out by Chechens. Instead, the Russian government has used the bombings as a pretext to launch a large-scale invasion of Chechnya.

The Russian Army's campaign in Chechnya bodes ill for Russia's political future. An ugly nationalist backlash already seems to be underway. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, whose public approval ratings have soared, has denounced the "dark-skinned people" in Chechnya, whom Russian forces "must annihilate." The destruction of Chechnya may not mean the immediate end of Russia's progress toward democracy, but it could do irreparable harm.

Western governments have expressed criticism of Russia's actions, but they have been reluctant to take serious reprisals. During NATO's operations in Yugoslavia this past spring, Russia accused the West of genocide and war crimes, and suspended cooperative efforts with NATO countries. The operation in Yugoslavia had its shortcomings, but NATO did at least try to minimize civilian casualties. Russia has shown no such scruples in Chechnya, yet the bloodshed there has evoked only muted complaints and little action in the West.

Western governments should terminate, not just delay, the loan that Russia has been awaiting from the International Monetary Fund. Other forms of bilateral and multilateral cooperation, except for programs to dismantle nuclear weapons, also should be suspended.

Although the U.S. and its allies cannot bring a halt to Russia's destruction of Chechnya, they should leave no doubt that all aspects of Russia's relations with the West will be gravely damaged if the slaughter continues.


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